Jonathan Klawans on the divergence of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes
In his Biblical Views column “Theology Versus Law in Ancient Judaism” in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Boston University professor of religion Jonathan Klawans recounts a conversation had among a group of mostly Jewish married couples:
One of the non-Jewish spouses in the group said something to the effect that he had considered converting to Judaism but decided he could not. Someone asked, “Why not?” To which he replied, “Oh, I can’t convert to Judaism. I don’t believe in God.” Someone else present immediately slammed his hand on the table in objection, “And what does that have to do with it?”
For Klawans, this story is representative of a common belief that in Judaism, it’s more about what one does than what one believes. In Klawans’s interpretation, what Jews do is informed by Jewish laws and practices, and what they believe is informed by Jewish theology. This view—to which many modern Jewish intellectuals subscribe—can be attributed to the great 18th-century German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who considered Judaism a religion of revealed law. Drawing from Mendelssohn, some scholars today believe, according to Klawans, that Second Temple period Jews—including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes—were primarily concerned with defining laws and practices and less so on developing fixed beliefs in Jewish theology.
That different Jewish sects disagreed over laws and practices is well attested. Manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that the ancient Jews argued over matters concerning the calendar, diet, purity rules and sacrificial procedures. In Rabbinic literature, the Pharisees and especially the Sadducees are said to have been greatly concerned with legal matters.
Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In this free eBook, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism when you download our free Dead Sea Scrolls eBook.
Just as much scholarly attention should be paid to divergences in ancient Jewish theology as to those in ancient Jewish law, Klawans says.
For instance, disagreements between the Pharisees and Sadducees over the afterlife are attested in Rabbinic literature and the New Testament and by Josephus. The Wisdom of Ben Sira (also known as the book of Ecclesiasticus) and the Community Rule scroll from Qumran—associated by some scholars with a community of Essenes—describe different ideas of fate and free will.
What are the implications of shining a greater light on ancient Jewish theological debates? Learn what Jonathan Klawans concludes by reading his full Biblical Views column “Theology Versus Law in Ancient Judaism” in the January/February 2015 issue of BAR.
BAS Library Members: Read the Biblical Views column “Theology Versus Law in Ancient Judaism” by Jonathan Klawans in the January/February 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
Schisms in Jewish History
Lawrence H. Schiffman’s four-part series on unity and disunity throughout Jewish history.
Biblical Pharisees and Jewish Halakhah
Good guys with bad press, says scholar Roland Deines.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.